The government last night received a second severe blow to 'executive-led governance' in as many months as another crucial bill failed to pass as expected.
But unlike the food labelling law, which passed albeit without its desired exemptions for small-volume sales items, the future of the Race Discrimination Bill has been thrown into doubt after unionist lawmakers, usually considered government-friendly, helped to strike out a crucial section of the bill offering exemptions for language discrimination.
Pan-democrats and rights experts had feared the new law would allow for, if not endorse, public officers discriminating when carrying out their duties, or for the government to ignore the needs of those who cannot find jobs through the labour department or receive medical treatment because of poor Chinese-language skills.
Amendments raised by the bill's committee chairwoman Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee addressed these concerns, but throughout the evening, her amendments were voted down one by one.
But during a debate over an amendment which sought to remove the exemption of language discrimination, lawmaker Wong Kwok-hing, of the Federation of Trade Unions, made an unexpectedly short, but impassioned speech.
'Ensuring ethnic minorities are given fair treatment with regards to their language is a fundamental requirement of a racial discrimination law. I support Ms Ng's amendment.' The amendment, which required the support of a majority vote from both chambers, failed. But in voting to return the language-exemption clause to the bill, which required a simple majority, 26 voted against the clause, with only 24 voting in favour.
The original clause would have provided an exemption to a wide range of private-sector and public services from discriminating on the basis of language. Ms Ng described this as ridiculous. 'Discrimination is discrimination. You can't say language discrimination doesn't count.'
Democratic Party member Yeung Sum said this was a severe blow and embarrassment to the government. He said the administration could either take back the bill for revisions 'and be an international laughing stock' or move ahead without the language exemptions, meaning a huge amount of effort to ensure that the government was in line with the law.
Fermi Wong Wai-fun, executive director of Unison, a non-governmental organisation representing minority interests, warned the government not to take back the bill and go ahead with revisions.
Three Federation of Trade Union lawmakers as well as Li Fung-ying and banking representative David Li Kwok-po made the surprise move to block the government-proposed language exemptions.
A spokesman for the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau said: 'We are in the process of studying. We will make a decision later.'
The debate resumes today.